Unitarian Universalism: “Not Interested” v. “Opposed”

Sometimes something can be totally clear in my head but not end up that way on paper – or rather, computer screen. A couple of comments have indicated that I was unclear about something in last week’s post on Unitarian Universalism and diversity of belief. In that post I touched on some of the reasons some atheists object to the UU church. I wasn’t saying that these are the reasons non-UU atheists are not UU, but I didn’t make that clear enough.

Let me see if I can offer a bit of an example. Some parents involve their kids in Boy Scouts and/or Girl Scouts. Most don’t. The reasons why they don’t vary. Most are simply not interested – they have their kids in other activities, they don’t have the time for scouts, the format doesn’t appeal to them, there is no local chapter, it’s just not their thing, etc. However, some parents don’t involve their kids in Boy Scouts and/or Girl Scouts not because they are not interested but rather because they are opposed to those groups. An increasing number of people today oppose the Boy Scouts because that group discriminates against atheists and gay people. Or on a different note, many conservative evangelicals don’t put their daughters in Girl Scouts because o that group’s messages of female empowerment and sexual responsibility. In other words, there is a difference between not being involved in a group simply because you aren’t interested and not being involved in a group out of principle, i.e. because you find it find something about it objectionable.

I wrote last week a bit about new ways of thinking about building secular community, and praised an article suggesting that we broaden our understanding of what we mean by “church” in order to deprivelege religion. When I wrote last year about reclaiming Sunday mornings, many atheists replied enthusiastically, writing about the ways they’ve filled the times and seasons that used to be the terrain of organized religion. In other words, there are lots of atheists who simply feel no need for what the UU church seeks to offer. They’re not interested, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

But I have also met a good number of atheists, both online or in person, who are not comfortable with the idea of building community with religious believers if doing so means they have to tone down their criticism of religion or appear to give religious beliefs a “pass.” I’ve met atheists who don’t think the congregational structure or minesterial position can be salvaged. Think of criticisms of the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy or of interfaith work, for instance. In other words, there are some atheists who are not simply not interested in the UU church but actually oppose some of its underlying goals and practices.

When I wrote last week about the UU church’s embrace of diversity of belief, I was focusing on this second group – those opposed to the UU church – not the first group – those simply not interested in the UU church. Note this passage, for instance:

As I’ve spent time attending my local UU church and learning about Unitarian Universalism, I have come to understand the problem many atheists have with it, and it’s not just that some dislike ritual or congregational gathering or having someone called a “minister.”

My focus was on why some atheists have a problem with UU churches, not on non-UU atheists writ large. (And in this vein I probably should have said “some” rather than “many”, but given the vocal nature of the criticism interfaith receives I can perhaps be pardoned.)

I have absolutely no problem with the fact that most atheists are simply not interested in the UU church, and I understand why some atheists actively object to the UU church’s embrace of religious and spiritual diversity. I should have been more clear, however, in acknowledging the distinction between simply not being interested in something and actually having objections to it.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://nwrickert.wordpress.com/ Neil Rickert

    My two cents, which is consistent with what you say:

    Back in my youth, when I was a theist, the part that is disliked was the emphasis on formality, tradition and ritual. The good part was making friends with decent people.

    While there is a UU group in my community, the idea does not attract me because of the formality, tradition and ritual that I would anticipate. And, fortunately enough, I’m doing okay with having decent friends so I don’t need that part.

  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com Kacy

    I could tell what you were trying to convey, especially in the context of your other posts on UU and your post a few weeks ago, “And it harm none, do what ye will.”

    I fall into the not interest category. The nearest UU church is 40 minutes away from my house, has a very small membership, and bad music. By “bad music,” I mean poor quality. When I was going to church, I always went somewhere that had a good children’s program and good music. The nearest UU church simply fails in those areas. Thankfully our atheist group is working to becoming more family friendly–having “playdates” once a month and discussing the possibility of doing mythology lessons with the younger children and philosophy club for the older children.

  • smrnda

    I don’t think you were unclear at all and I didn’t get any impression that you were promoting the UU church as *the solution* to replicating the role of religion in people’s lives.

    For me, I’d put myself in the not interested category, mostly since I’ve been able to satisfy my need for community of people who share my values through volunteer work and interest-based activities, and when it comes to music, I can pretty reliably find a live performance at least a couple of days a week. Perhaps if someone is used to the church scene, it’s more desirable of satisfying since it fits a form that a person is used to but with better content.

    On being against it, religious beliefs are kind of on a spectrum – on the far end there are beliefs that are definitely false and definitely harmful, and I wouldn’t want to have any more contact with people who held such beliefs than absolutely necessary, but if someone agrees with me on a lot of issues, what I don’t agree with them on is less important.

    Another thing is that I’ve never felt a desire to belong to any atheist organizations or attend activities either, though I did once attend a talk given about secular Judaism, but neglected to get more involved since I’m pretty booked already and couldn’t add any more social commitments.

    Something I think is a problem is that many activities or organizations are set up for adult members and don’t make enough accommodations for children and parents. You mentioned this before when you talked about the atheist group that met in a bar – even though the group wasn’t really for you, if it had been it’s still not that accessible. As I get older and know more people with children I realize how important it is to make sure that events are kid friendly. Sometimes it doesn’t take an immense amount of effort, but it’s the type of thing some people just don’t think of at all.

  • pagansister

    I was raised in the Methodist church but at 17 was having doubts about what I had been taught etc. In college (at 17) I met my future husband who just happened to be a born and raised UU. (not many of those around). On his father’s side there were Unitarians all the way back to England. We married, have 2 children that we raised in the UU tradition. They are now adults who have made up their own minds regarding their beliefs, thanks to a basis in the UU church. It’s true that no 2 UU churches are the same. Some are quite “religious” and some aren’t. My mother-in-law was responsible in helping to start a UU fellowship in the city she lived in. The group split from the established UU church in town as they disagreed in the way it was headed. The fellowship she helped begin (in the early 1990′s) is prospering. Personally, now that the children are grown, we have not found a need to go to the UU church in the town that we live in. We did, however, want to give the children a start in that kind of community so they would hae a basis to make their minds up later if “religion” was something they needed. Even though I didn’t believe what I was taught in the Methodist faith, I am happy I had something as a basis to start from as I grew.

  • DoctorD

    You may have a sympathetic viewpoint of UU, but many at the top of UU abhor atheists.
    http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2011/rigid-authoritarian-and-emotionally-abusive/
    UU many not have a rigid structure, but you’re still expected to believe in the supernatural.

    • pagansister

      Dr. D : Having belonged to 2 different UU churches I never heard anything said against atheists. As I mentioned above, (#4) just as any other faith institution, no 2 UU churches are alike. Even those folks that attend different faith institutions find the atmosphere different in each one. My best friends’ mother didn’t care for the Methodist church we attended for whatever reason, so chose to go to another Methodist church. A generalization about any faith really isn’t accurate.

    • Adele

      Dr D:

      This statement, “UU many not have a rigid structure, but you’re still expected to believe in the supernatural” is quite simply, unequivocably false. You are NOT expected to believe in the supernatural. What you ARE expected to do, is treat others who do believe in the supernatural with respect. Telling someone her beliefs are absurd, illogical, irrational and/or have no basis is not considered respectful in a UU church. I have observed that there are some (by no means all or even most) atheists who not only fail to treat believers with this definition of respect, but who also appear to think that doing so would be a betrayal of their own atheism. Some atheists seem so sure that they are “right” that if a person is not willing to vocally and frequently assert that all non-atheists are clearly “wrong” then that person shouldn’t even be considered a real atheist. I will certainly acknowledge that this type of atheist is not really welcome in a UU church. At least not in my opinion. I do know that there are atheists and theists in my church and that at least some of the atheists whine about being discriminated against and not respected, but at least as many if not more of the theists whine about being discriminated against and not respected. I think there are individuals in both camps who are just disrespectful people in general.

  • http://www.twitter.com/nicoleintrovert Nicole Introvert

    At times I long for a sense of belonging… but I am still mostly against the complete tax exemption of churches and the UU is no different. I also really don’t care for music in a church setting. Even if they are not singing hymns, that choral type music is not my jam and would more than likely bore me. I’ve tried to find my belonging elsewhere such as becoming a board member for my local running club and spending time volunteering as a clinic escort.

    I have atheist friends who attend our local UU church. One is a singer and joined the choir. She really enjoys it. But that’s just not my idea of a good time. I’d rather just go to a straight up lecture.

  • grumpygirl

    I’m a life time atheist raised by atheists, and I joined a UU congregation several years ago. I was never interested in joining a faith community, but one of my kids wanted to go, so I went with him to check it out. What does an atheist need worship services for???

    I’ve become an active member in the congregation and thoroughly enjoy it. It’s a caring community that looks out for our spiritual well-being, however we personally define it. It’s also a group of people who work towards social justice, understanding of others points of view, protecting the underdog. It is also an awesome outlet for my creative pursuits, we have AWESOME music! We even have our own rock band.

    There is a real pleasure to being surrounded by others who hold the same values that you do. UUs tend to be scientists, engineers and others who are very thoughtful about what they believe. And many, if not most of us, are atheists.

    One of the unpleasant things that sometimes happens in UU congregations is that the atheist groups will get disrespectful about those who do believe is some sort of divine being. That’s a big no-no in UUism, but that’s a good point to remind those folks that we are all humans together on this earth, and we all look at things differently, even those of us who believe the same way.

    With all the (mostly Christian) hatred against atheists, I thought I might get a break now that I “have” a religion, but UUs are despised as well.


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